I try to post a list each year of my ten favorite or best new books I’ve read during the year. I like this year’s mix of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.
Full disclosure: Some of these were written by friends or acquaintances of mine. Doesn’t matter, though. Buy them anyway. They’re good.
Royal Hettling, Ten: Five-Five: Boots-on-the-Ground True Stories of a Midwestern Boy and Fellow Handlers Who Served in the Vietnam War. The book is a sometimes grim, sometimes violent, but always eye-opening memoir of Hettling’s military service in Vietnam. With his editor, Dana Miller, Hettling tells an unsparing story with an effective post-modern technique, weaving in first-person voices of a handful of soldiers who served with him. The method creates a multi-layered effect as we hear the same event described from several perspectives. It was a frightening, violent year of service. Hettling and his unit, guard-dog handlers at a fuel and ammo base, fought several small, intense battles and the base they defended was under daily threat of attack by Viet Cong artillery or incursions by Viet Cong guerillas that inevitably led to deadly firefights. We read the story as it unfolds, but also read it through the memories and perspectives of the soldiers more than forty years later – the rare moments they enjoyed, the many that still haunt them.
Anthony Neil Smith’s Holy Death. The latest in Smith’s Billy Lafitte series brings the relentless, death-defying Lafitte back to the Gulf Coast. Lafitte is scary-tough as always, but another character in this one really made me shiver.
James Zarzana’s Marsco Triumphant, the second in Zarzana’s Marsco science-fiction series. It does what all good sci-fi should – use its speculative setting and technology to pose compelling questions about life today. Set in a near-future where Earth is a near-wasteland, the technology and some of novel’s more worrisome aspects seem closer every day.
Joseph Amato’s My Three Sicilies. A strong three-section hybrid of poetry, essays and drawn-from-real-life short stories that paint vivid portraits of some of Amato’s ancestors (vivid people, sometimes mystically so), and draws surprising connections between rural Sicily and the rural Midwest.
Margaret Haase, Between Us. The St. Paul poet’s new collection is a wonderful blend of careful, tender observations of nature, thoughts on aging, subtle wit, social-justice anger, and a sensual understanding of friends, lovers and the earth itself.
David Pichaske, The Pigeons of Buchenau. A short-story collection, mostly set in Germany, among a group of friends who sort through life after the Berlin Wall, and confront death and other loss. The collection also includes a sweet and funny story about Pichaske’s late dog Bear – told by Bear – and a few other stories set in southwest Minnesota.
Joe Wilkins, When We Were Birds. Another moving, soulful poetry collection from the former Waldorf College professor who now teaches and writes in Oregon.
Athena Kildegaard, Ventriloquy. What do you know? Move to a new town, go to a poetry reading and there’s one of Minnesota’s best-known poets – who lives in the same town – reading from her newest book. It consists of four poem sequences, and after reading the first sequence, I don’t think I can ever look at a flower the same way again!
James Shapiro’s The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. This book came out late in 2015, late enough for me to roll it over into my 2016 reads. There’s a lot of research and history, but what makes it succeed is how well Shapiro draws bold lines from real-life point to in-the-script point, showing how a year of great political turmoil and tension led to, and often turned up in, the three great tragedies Shakespeare wrote in 1606: King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. In the months before and while he wrote them, England was rocked by the Gunpowder Plot, and the hunt for and eventual execution of its perpetrators. The assassination of King James was an everyday threat – and sometimes rumored occurrence. Shakespeare’s great tragedies reflect the turmoil, serve some of King James’ political interests, and yet stand, timeless, as great art and devastating contemplation of the uses and abuses of power.
I tend to read books from hither and yon, old and new. These books were not published in 2016 but I read or re-read them this year and would recommend them, too
Thomas McGrath, Death Song (poetry)
Michael Reynolds, Hemingway: the Paris Years (biography)
Philip Dacey, Deathbed Playboy (poetry). Late, great, one of my most important role writing models — and one of his best books.
Anne Lamott – Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (essays, humorous and honest about how to keep your life together when it seems to be falling apart).
Reed Browning, Cy Young: A Baseball Life. The annual award given to Major League Baseball’s best pitchers is called the Cy Young Award. This is a book about the real Cy Young, who won 511 games in the 1890s and 1910s. Farm-boy strong from rural Ohio, Young was no bumpkin – smart in business, shrewder than the big-league owners he pitched for, but highly loyal to his teammates. Plus, he was the best pitcher for the 1903 Boston Pilgrims, who won the very first World Series.
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (fiction, stunning portrait of Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer and businessman who became invaluable to King Henry VIII.)
Guillermo Joyce, Miller, Bukowski and their Enemies, (essays, literary criticism. A look at two fearless authors, written by another.)